2022 Look Ahead: Saudi Arabia’s booming entertainment sector is just getting started

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Updated 01 January 2022
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2022 Look Ahead: Saudi Arabia’s booming entertainment sector is just getting started

  • Many Saudis are experiencing home-grown arts, culture and sporting events for the first time ever 
  • After the delays and closures of the pandemic, the entertainment calendar is packed once more 

RIYADH: For around 30 years, entertainment venues, from cinemas to concert halls, were bolted shut across Saudi Arabia, depriving citizens and visitors of outlets to enjoy cultural, sporting and artistic activities in public 

All that began to change in 2016 with the establishment of the General Entertainment Authority as part of the Kingdom’s wide-ranging social and economic reform agenda, Vision 2030.

Five years on, the thirst for entertainment in Saudi Arabia is plain to see. In the space of just two months, up to 8 million people have taken part in Riyadh Season 2021 — a cultural extravaganza that was unheard of just half a decade ago.




Boys wave national flags during celebrations in Riyadh marking Saudi Arabia's National Day on Sept. 23, 2020. (AFP)

The General Entertainment Authority was established to help drive ahead the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, allowing it to become a global leader in the creative, leisure, tourism and hi-tech industries.

Now, Saudi citizens and international visitors, no matter their level of income, can enjoy a whole host of entertainment options previously denied to them, improving their quality of life and the Kingdom’s appeal as a work and investment destination.




Entrepreneurs offer camel rides in AlUla. (AN file photo)

Within just five years, the GEA has issued 2,189 licenses and 1,809 permits allowing more than 2,500 companies to launch home-grown entertainment ventures. The sector has already created more than $1 billion in profits and attracted over 75 million visitors.

Although Saudi Arabia’s entertainment revolution suffered setbacks in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with events suspended, venues closed, and international travel barred for several months, the cultural calendar returned with a bang in 2021. Much is still to come.




Saudi fans mob a wrestling star during a WWE event in Jeddah. (Supplied)

For a whole generation of young Saudis, this will be another year of firsts.

Until the late 1980s, Saudi cities enjoyed a flourishing artistic movement that offered the public a wide variety of entertainment options. However, this came to an end in the early 1990s.




Saudi fans attend the "MDL Beast Fest", an electronic music festival, held in Banban on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh on Dec. 19, 2019. (AFP file)

For a time, just two music festivals took place per year — one at the Muftaha Theater in Abha, and another at Jeddah’s Summer Concerts — until these too were stopped. The last open concert in Riyadh took place in 1992 during Al-Janadriyah festival.

FASTFACTS

2016 General Entertainment Authority established.

2017 First public concerts in nearly three decades.

2018 35-year ban on public cinemas finally lifted.

2018 Kingdom’s first ever Diriyah E-Prix.

2019 Launch of Saudi Seasons initiative.

The silence was broken in March 2017 with the Kingdom’s first public concert in nearly three decades. Although attendance was limited to men only, tickets for the performance by Saudi artists Mohammed Abdu and Rashid Al-Majed sold out immediately.




The Cairo Opera House's National Arab Music Ensemble (AME) perform at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh on April 25, 2018. (AFP)

Later that year, Saudi Arabia hosted its first public performance by a female artist. Lebanese singer Heba Tawaji performed on stage at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh to an exclusively female audience of 3,000.

During the same year, Greek composer and pianist Yanni performed in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. In a tweet before his arrival in Saudi Arabia, he said: “We are going to be experiencing history in the making and I would not miss it for anything in the world! First stop Jeddah! ...Yanni.”




Participants at work during the Formula E race in Diriyah, Riyadh. (AFP)

The following year saw the launch of Ad Diriyah concerts, with several performances held on the sidelines of the Kingdom’s biggest event — the Formula E race in Diriyah — including an unforgettable show by French DJ David Guetta.

“That concert was magical. I loved every second of it,” music fan Eithar Alshadukhi told Arab News at the time. “David Guetta’s songs are amazing, but when he created a special piece for Saudi Arabia, it blew me away.”




Mariah Carey performing in Jeddah in 2019. (AN file photo)

In 2019, American singer-songwriter Mariah Carey performed in Jeddah, making her the highest-profile international artist to perform in the Kingdom since the easing of restrictions on entertainment.

During the same year, K-Pop boy band BTS became the first foreign artists to play a solo stadium show in Saudi Arabia before an audience of over 60,000 at the King Fahd International Stadium.




Music concerts blossomed in Saudi Arabia since 2016. (Supplied)

Music concerts are not the only field of entertainment that has blossomed in Saudi Arabia since 2016. Intensely proud of its heritage and natural beauty, the Kingdom has invested heavily in promoting leisure and tourism activities in its coastal, mountain and desert regions.

In the process, Saudi Arabia has broken several Guinness World Records, including a 2020 record for the largest hot air balloon glow show over the ancient city of AlUla, with 100 balloons spread across 3 km of sky.




Hot air balloon festival in the ancient city of AlUla. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Season 2021 also received two Guinness World Record certificates for “Avalanche.” With 24 lanes reaching a record height of more than 22 meters, it was recognized as both the world’s tallest fun slide and the one with the most lanes.

INNUMBERS

2,500 Companies licensed by General Entertainment Authority.

$1bn Saudi entertainment industry profits over past 5 years.

75m Visitors to recent Saudi-hosted events and activities.

Another area of entertainment that has boomed over the past five years is the film industry. In 2018, the 35-year ban on public cinemas was finally lifted, spurring the growth of a domestic market and the opening of “Movi” — the first nationally owned and operated cinema in Saudi Arabia — first in Jeddah then throughout the Kingdom.




The lifting in 2018 of a 35-year ban on public cinemas has spurred the growth of a domestic market and the opening of “Movi”. (Supplied)

In 2019, the Red Sea International Film Festival was launched, bringing together Saudi and international filmmakers, actors, and industry professionals to celebrate cinema and the world’s greatest on-screen talent.

The festival’s ambitious mandate is to develop and promote the film industry in Saudi Arabia, discover raw regional talent, and support a new wave of cinema worldwide.




The opening of the Kingdom's entertainment industry has spurred interest in filmmaking and acting. (File photo)

To preserve and promote Saudi Arabia’s rich and unique culture, while also boosting the domestic and international tourism market, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage launched the Saudi Seasons initiative in 2019 to high acclaim.

Festivals have taken place in Riyadh, Jeddah, Eastern Province, Taif, AlUla, Ad Diriyah, and elsewhere, celebrating the Kingdom’s diverse local crafts and traditions, while also creating jobs for young Saudis.




Hundreds of resorts have sprung up across Saudi Arabia since the Kingdom opened its tourism industry a few years back. (SPA)

Tourism is one area Saudi Arabia is especially eager to promote with the launch of its Saudi e-visa in 2019. The Kingdom expects to have hosted 100 million tourists by 2030, drawn by a mixture of new luxury resorts on its coastline, educational outings among its spectacular ancient ruins, and adventure activities in its vast deserts and lush mountains.

So much has already been achieved in the Kingdom’s leisure and entertainment industries since reforms began just five years ago. No doubt 2022 will be another year of firsts on the road to 2030.


Ancient castles in Sabya governorate reflect architectural heritage

Updated 6 min 56 sec ago
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Ancient castles in Sabya governorate reflect architectural heritage

  • The Sabya Archaeological Castle has origins that date to the early 20th century

RIYADH: The Sabya governorate in the Jazan region is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders, each with its own unique story.

Among these is the Sabya Archaeological Castle, whose origins date to the early 20th century. The castle, steeped in history, is a must-visit for any archeology enthusiast or researcher.

The castle is situated near Sabya Avenue, within King Fahd Park. It is part of the present city of Sabya, which offers a view of Wadi Sabya. 

The Sabya Archaeological Castle, an architectural marvel, boasts spacious rooms with high ceilings and thick walls. The walls, adorned with beautiful geometric and floral patterns, are a testament to the skill of the craftsmen who built them.

Local materials such as volcanic stone, wood, and limestone were used during construction. Some accounts suggest that the clay used in making bricks was sourced from the banks of Wadi Sabya.

The use of volcanic stones of various sizes and shapes in particular gives the castle a unique and captivating beauty. The stones were obtained from volcanoes near the city, including Jabal Akwa, located a short distance northeast of Sabya.

The mosque, situated north of the castle, was also constructed using the same building materials as the castle and other structures in the area. It was intended for prayers and gatherings of religious leaders, dignitaries, and the people of Sabya. Its mihrab, or prayer niche, still stands despite some damage.

Some accounts suggest the presence of remains of other buildings in the vicinity of the castle, opening the possibility of conducting archaeological excavations to reveal more secrets about this site.

The Kingdom’s Heritage Commission is diligently working to preserve the Sabya Archaeological Castle, recognizing its significance as one of the most important archaeological sites in the Jazan region.


Artist captures Saudi charm with digital works

Updated 14 min 59 sec ago
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Artist captures Saudi charm with digital works

  • Ghada Al-Shammari says art can be a means to showcase nation’s rich heritage

RIYADH: Timeless Arabic songs and heartfelt poetry provide the inspiration for Ghada Al-Shammari’s digital art, which showcases the Kingdom’s culture and society.

Al-Shammari's first artwork in 2017 was inspired by a popular Saudi song by Majed Al-Esa called “Hwages,” which means “concerns” in English.

The music video provided a comment on society by using satire, showcasing women driving cars, skateboarding, and playing basketball — activities that at the time were not easily accessible for women.

“I liked how they portrayed women in the traditional Saudi abaya, which motivated me to draw it,” Al-Shammari told Arab News.

For one of her artworks Al-Shammari was inspired by a poem by literary icon Prince Badr bin Abdul Mohsen and popularly performed by the late Saudi singer Talal Maddah.

The drawing depicts a man glancing at a woman who has her eyes downcast, with an oud instrument between them, and the 1980 song title “Forgive Me” written in Arabic text above the illustration.

The Saudi artist said that she tries to capture the poet’s feelings with her artwork, adding: “Romantic songs with descriptions of the poet’s beloved have been particularly inspiring for me.” 

Al-Shammari draws inspiration from the beauty within the Kingdom’s culture. Many of her artworks depict women wearing traditional Najdi-style dresses and gowns with draping silhouettes and glimmering gold headpieces and turbans.

The men are depicted with striking features and wearing traditional garments like the head coverings called ghutra or shemagh, and bisht, the men’s cloak commonly worn in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

“Saudi culture and traditions have significantly impacted my work. Growing up, I used to think of Saudi Arabia as just what was around me in terms of environment, customs, and traditions,” Al-Shammari said. 

When she moved from her hometown of Hafar Al-Batin to the capital Riyadh, Al-Shammari said her friendships and acquaintances showed her a new world of ideas that elevated her artistic vision. 

She added: “They shared stories about their region, important landmarks, and fascinating tales that were unique to their areas. This motivated me to learn more about my country and enjoy drawing the diversity and differences I discovered in my artworks.

“Saudi Arabia is full of exciting things, and its diversity is what fascinates me the most. Each region has its own heritage, traditions, architecture, and unique dialect, which makes me eager to learn more and create works that reflect this beautiful diversity.”

Al-Shammari said she selects particular color combinations to evoke the emotions she aims to convey, opting for brighter colors for her cheerful and vibrant works. 

Al-Shammari graduated from the College of Arts and Design at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

She added: “Through this specialization, I discovered many artistic and historical aspects, learned about various artists, and got to understand their ideas and philosophies, which transformed my perspective of my work.”

Her love of art began as a child when she would draw characters from her favorite anime and cartoons.

“I started focusing on drawing from an educational perspective at the age of 12 through YouTube tutorials on drawing anime and cartoons, which sparked my artistic journey,” Al-Shammari said.

She added that art is important as it showcases the cultural aspect of a country and its heritage, conveying its history and traditions that help define life in the past and present.

She said: “It serves as a way to preserve and transmit this heritage from one generation to the next, seeking to document knowledge and memories.

“Additionally, from an economic standpoint, art is considered a means to attract tourists interested in discovering the country and its civilization.”

For more information on the artist, visit her Instagram @gh.oi.


KSrelief chief and WHO’s Tedros meet in Geneva, sign agreements worth $20m

Updated 25 May 2024
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KSrelief chief and WHO’s Tedros meet in Geneva, sign agreements worth $20m

  • Al-Rabeeah also signed five executive programs with WHO for Yemen, Sudan, and Syria, with a total value of $19,496,000.

GENEVA: The chief of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) Dr. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah met with Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Saturday in Geneva.

The meeting was held on the sidelines of the 77th World Health Assembly currently being held in the Swiss city. 

Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva Abdulmohsen bin Khothaila also attended the meeting.

During the meeting, the two sides discussed issues of common interest related to joint relief and humanitarian projects in the health sector, as well as the mechanisms for delivering medical assistance to patients and the injured worldwide.

Tedros praised the medical projects and programs carried out by the Kingdom, through KSrelief, to improve the health situation of those in need in various countries.

Also on Saturday, Al-Rabeeah signed five executive programs with WHO for Yemen, Sudan, and Syria, with a total value of $19,496,000.

The first agreement aims to address the severe shortage of kidney dialysis supplies in Sudan to reduce mortality among kidney failure patients across various Sudanese states by providing dialysis supplies sufficient for some 235,000 dialysis sessions, securing 100 dialysis machines, and paying the salaries of medical staff in 77 dialysis centers, with a value of $5 million.

The second agreement entails providing medical assistance to earthquake victims in Syria, with a total cost of $4,746,000.

The third agreement focuses on combating the spread of measles among children under five in Yemen, with a total cost of $3 million.

The fourth agreement aims to improve water and sanitation services in healthcare facilities, ensuring sustainable water supplies to serve the neediest populations in Yemen, valued at $3,750,000. The agreement includes drilling solar-powered wells in 10 healthcare facilities.

The fifth agreement aims to reduce the spread of cholera across Yemen, with a value of $3 million.


First group of Moroccan pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia through Makkah Route Initiative

Updated 25 May 2024
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First group of Moroccan pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia through Makkah Route Initiative

  • The Saudi leadership has prioritized caring for the pilgrims and creating an atmosphere of faith during their Hajj journey

RIYADH: The first group of Hajj pilgrims from Morocco arrived at the Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah on Saturday, having departed from Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca.

The pilgrims have traveled to the Kingdom through the Makkah Route Initiative.

The initiative aims to make the journey for pilgrims to complete Hajj as easy as possible, through electronic registration in their country of origin, including those related to immigration, health, luggage, travel, and housing in Makkah and Madinah.

They are transported by buses on designated routes, with service agencies delivering their luggage to their places of stay, Saudi Press Agency reported.

The MRI is part of the Ministry of Interior’s Pilgrim Experience Program (PEP), a pillar of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.

Now in its sixth year, the initiative is carried out in cooperation with a host public and semi-government authorities, including the ministries of foreign affairs, health, Hajj and Umrah, media, civil aviation, the Zakat, Tax and Customs authority, SDAIA and PEP.

The Saudi leadership has prioritized caring for the pilgrims and creating an atmosphere of faith during their Hajj journey.

Pilgrims who have been arriving in recent days have expressed their “gratitude to the Kingdom’s government for the services and facilities that have been provided, making their pilgrimage safe and reassuring,” Saudi Press Agency said.


Saudi authorities foil drug smuggling attempts in Jeddah, Hail, Jazan, Asir

Updated 6 sec ago
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Saudi authorities foil drug smuggling attempts in Jeddah, Hail, Jazan, Asir

RIYADH: Saudi authorities recently made several drug-related arrests in operations across the Kingdom, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Saturday.

The General Directorate of Narcotics Control arrested five individuals for violating border security regulations in Jeddah, among them an Ethiopian female on a visitor visa who had attempted to sell 27 kg of hashish and amphetamine.

Meanwhile, in Hail, the directorate arrested a Saudi national for selling 9.7 kg of hashish.

In another operation, Border Guard patrols in the Al-Harth governorate of the Jazan region thwarted an attempt to smuggle 27 kg of hashish.

Additionally, in the Al-Raboah sector of the Asir region, Border Guard patrols apprehended five border security violators of Ethiopian and Yemeni nationalities attempting to smuggle 352 kg of qat.

Preliminary legal procedures have been completed, and the seized drugs have been handed over to the authorities. All those arrested have been referred to the Public Prosecution.

The Saudi government urges anyone with information related to suspected smuggling operations or customs violations to call the confidential hotline 1910, the international number +966114208417, or to email [email protected].

Tips relating to smuggling and breaches of common customs law are treated with strict confidentiality. Financial rewards are offered for valid tips.